Unlikely, surprised and happy as the residents past and current won a $75 million law suit against the city. But can the city pay?
The current and former residents of a New Orleans neighborhood built on a toxic landfill scored a rare legal victory this week with a $75 million judgment against the city and the other developers of the Gordon Plaza subdivision. Orleans Civil District Court Judge Nicole Sheppard ruled on Monday that the 5,000 residents named in a class-action lawsuit are entitled to $75.3 million for emotional distress and property damage. Shepperd determined that the city, the Housing Authority of New Orleans and the Orleans Parish School Board are liable for the consequences of building two residential communities — Gordon Plaza and Press Park — and Moton Elementary School on top of the Agriculture Street landfill, a place later considered so contaminated that it later became a federal Superfund site. Sheppard credited the housing authority $13.6 million for an earlier settlement with the authority’s insurers. “This is a big deal for the residents of Agriculture Street,” said Suzette Bagneris, a lead attorney representing residents. Bagneris began working on the case when she was in law school. “Thirty years down the road, to see this come to an end, it’s an emotional moment.”nola.com
The city had no comment.
The city declined to discuss the case or say whether it will appeal. “The city is reviewing the judgment and weighing our options,” a spokesman said. The judgment comes less than two months after the city prevailed in a separate legal battle with residents. In early February, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld a district court decision that found the city was taking proper steps to protect the health of Gordon Plaza’s residents. Gordon Plaza homeowner Jesse Perkins said he’s happy about the latest judgment but skeptical about how much it will actually benefit residents. “It’s good news that will hopefully get some of us off this nasty landfill,” said Perkins, a member of Residents of Gordon Plaza Inc., a nonprofit representing the subdivision’s residents
The city has a history of not paying when they lose a case.
The city is notoriously stingy about paying settlements. As of late November, the city had more than 560 outstanding judgments and settlements in state and federal courts, with some dating back 25 years, according to a Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate analysis of city law department records. While city leaders have recently indicated they’d put several million dollars toward outstanding payments, the current backlog hovers near $40 million. Some residents are also worried about the size of the cut Bagneris and other attorneys will take, and how much will be left for residents. According to Perkins, Bagneris hasn’t communicated much with residents. He only learned about the judgment when Bagneris posted a celebratory statement on social media. She alluded to conflict between her and residents, saying in her post that her “own clients crucified me in the press.” In 2015, some residents accused Bagneris and other legal representatives of getting rich off of the hardships they’d endured at Gordon Plaza. In an earlier ruling, the housing authority’s insurance companies were ordered to pay residents $14.2 million, but roughly half the settlement went to Bagneris, four other lawyers and a court-appointed administrator. That left about $7 million to be divided between legal fees and more than 5,000 residents, resulting in an average settlement of a few hundred dollars per person
This could have been pro bono case because of who was being represented and the stature if they won.
Bagneris said the $75 million will be fairly apportioned based on the number of years each resident lived in Gordon Plaza, the locations of their homes, and other factors. For instance, someone who lived in Gordon Plaza for 20 or more years could receive $25,000 and 20% of the value of their home. But homes built on toxic land have little value, and the individual settlements may be too low to help many residents purchase homes elsewhere in New Orleans, Perkins said. “My property taxes were $57 last year,” he said. “That gives you an idea of the value of my house.” Most of the 65 homes that remain at Gordon Plaza are owner-occupied.
This is also an area with a high cancer rate further inhibiting a sale of the houses.
In 2019, a report from the Louisiana Tumor Registry found that the Desire neighborhood, which includes Gordon Plaza, has the second-highest consistent rate of cancer in the state. Gordon Plaza was built atop the Agriculture Street landfill during the 1970s and promoted as inexpensive housing for Black residents. The site’s toxic legacy wasn’t widely known until 1994, when it was labeled one of the U.S.’s most contaminated Superfund properties by the federal government. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fenced off part of the site, removed about 2 feet of soil in some areas and then placed mats and clean dirt over some of the contaminated soil.
All this is good and right but not enough.
Claiming the remediation wasn’t enough to protect residents from toxic chemical exposure, Bagneris filed suit in 1993. The plaintiffs scored their first significant victory in 2006, when a Civil District Court judge found the city, housing authority and school district liable for the dangers posed by building homes and a school on top of the landfill. This week’s judgment links liability with an actual payment amount, but it isn’t the full measure of justice residents seek, Perkins said. “We still have to fight fiercely to make this right,” he said.
In a very good sense, the fight has just begun.